An advance leak from the forthcoming United Nations (U.N.) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Oceans and Cryosphere confirms that the climate crisis is deepening. According to the leak, the U.N. report concludes that changes to global oceans, glaciers, and melting permafrost will unleash disaster upon the world including drought, floods, hunger and destruction unless dramatic action is taken to reduce global carbon emissions immediately.
It is against this backdrop that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has announced plans to drill 100 new offshore exploration wells and dramatically increase its oil production by 2030, thereby roughly tripling the oil and gas sector’s carbon emissions. The province is currently carrying out a Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (RSEA) of its offshore exploration drilling plans, which included a climate change session.
As a participant in this process, I made the simple mathematical point during one of the sessions that the province cannot possibly meet its 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target if it proceeds with its drilling plans in the offshore. What’s more, carbon emissions from the full production of currently operating oil and gas fields and coal mines across the world will already lead to a global temperature rise above the 2 degrees Celsius limit set in Paris in 2017 by the U.N., much less the aspirational 1.5C target.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s emissions target for 2030 is 6.9 million tonnes (megatonnes) of carbon dioxide. If the province triples oil production as it intends to do, this would mean that emissions from this sector alone in 2030 would account for an estimated 4.9 Mt of this target, or 71%, making it virtually impossible for the province to reach its emissions reduction goals.
Representatives of oil companies attending the RSEA session responded by saying that, while this analysis is true, Newfoundland and Labrador’s contribution to Canada’s and the planet’s carbon emissions is small and therefore inconsequential. Moreover, the world will need oil for the foreseeable future so if oil and gas is not produced in the province, it will simply be produced elsewhere. This response is commonly heard in defense of the oil and gas industry in Canada in an effort to stymie efforts to reign in emissions and question the long-term viability of the industry.
Here’s the thing. Either we are serious about our Paris commitments or we are not. We cannot pretend we will meet our global emissions reduction targets while continuing to expand fossil fuel production at the same time. This is what is commonly known as cognitive dissonance, the act of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time and believing them both to be true.
It is simply not true that that the world will continue to use oil and gas long at increasing rates into the future *IF* we are serious about our carbon reduction commitments. Asserting the future inevitability of oil and gas is a bet against Canada and the world meeting its Paris targets. If on the other hand, we are serious about meeting the Paris targets, then the demise of oil and gas becomes a mathematical inevitability. We cannot both expand fossil fuel production AND reduce emissions at the same time.
While it is true that some energy projections assert that the world will continue to need fossil fuels for decades to come, this is not the case if the world is to stay within 2C of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook in 2012 stated that “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be burned, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable.” In 2015, the Bank of England warned that policies designed to limit carbon emissions could mean some fossil fuels become “stranded assets”, with the Bank’s governor adding that “the vast majority of reserves are unburnable if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2 degrees C.” Even the oil giant Shell conceded in 2013 “in a world where the 2C limit is imposed and achieved, most of the future value generation of the companies involved will never be realized.”
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well of the rest of Canada, has come to a moment of reckoning. Why even bother setting targets in the first place if we are not serious about meeting them?